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Wanted: Soul-Searchers and Risk-Takers

Fulbright Scholar Mahendra Naidoo follows his gut to pursue public health.

Credit: Chris Hartlove

Fulbright Scholar Mahendra Naidoo follows his gut to pursue public health.

 

Clinical medicine lost its spark for Mahendra Naidoo after his first year of fellowship in gastroenterology. His gut told him to step back from the specialty and explore health from a broader view.

“The MPH program has been a soul-searching journey,” says Naidoo, who traveled from New Zealand to Baltimore on a Fulbright Scholarship.

Crunching numbers in biostatistics didn’t come naturally and writing lengthy policy documents grew taxing for him. But in a law course during a group presentation about curbing drunk driving, Naidoo discovered he had a flair for pitching big ideas.

The yearning to make a large-scale impact aligned him with classmates Arun Nair, MD, International Health Fellow in the Johns Hopkins Department of Emergency Medicine, and Vanessa Cavallera, MD, a Fulbright Scholar from Italy. The trio now is at the cusp of launching a start-up to produce low-cost medical devices for the global market.

The first prototype, designed by Nair, is a device capped with a video camera that could help clinicians insert a breathing tube effectively and safely into a patient. The gadget could give a clear view of important anatomy—like the vocal cords and trachea—in both emergency and non-emergency situations. 

The team projects it will only cost several hundred dollars compared to products currently on the market that run for several thousand, says Naidoo, who is working to commercialize the device.

“I’ve gained a clearer understanding that what I want to do in the long-term is help underprivileged populations in low- and middle-income countries and reduce health inequalities,” he says, citing the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as inspiration.

When Naidoo expressed frustration about his untethered ambitions relating to social entrepreneurship and philanthropy to Amnesty E. LeFevre, PhD, his advisor’s answer surprised him, and resonated with him. She said she hoped he still felt unsatisfied 20 years in the future, because that’s what would fuel him to keep pushing boundaries.

“That was one of the most potent things she or anyone here has said to me,” he says. “It’s allowed me in this soul-searching journey to accept feeling uncomfortable.”

Before he returns to New Zealand—a requirement of the Fulbright Scholarship—he hopes to work for a year with the UN or WHO. At the same time, the budding company could take off, or he might venture into health IT at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The road beyond graduation in May 2015 is foggy, and makes him nervous, but he credits the Bloomberg School with giving him lots of options.

“As Alfred Sommer has told us in his lectures, ‘When you’re at the fork in the road, just take the path that’s most exciting,’” Naidoo says. “When it comes to these final few months, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

Learn More About the MPH Program.

—Salma Warshanna-Sparklin